I recently finished reading Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There, that focuses on her gender and on her transition from living as a man to living as a woman. The book was a very good read, but it’s been bothering me since I finished it. The thing that bothers me is summed up in a phrase from the afterward by Richard Russo. In the afterward Russo relates his story of telling his wife what he has just learned from his friend, then Jim Boylan, about how Boylan has always believed he is a woman and that he intends on transitioning. Russo then says he told his wife that “Grace [Boylan’s spouse] knew, and was, of course, devastated.”
It’s this phrase “of course, devastated” that’s been eating away at my brain. In part, my difficulty is with “devastated.” It’s such a strong word. But it’s not entirely the word devastated because I can’t question the authenticity of that emotion (although you will note that we don’t actually get Grace’s emotions first hand, only filtered through Jenny or Russo). It’s really the combination of “of course” and “devastated” that really bothers me. In some ways, Grace’s experience mirrors my own. We were with our partners similar lengths of time before learning our partners were trans, we were both clueless beforehand, and we were both in families with two young children when we learned about the trans status. But I don’t feel devastated at all, so when I read “of course, devastated” I feel erased.
There are lots of possible emotional responses to learning that your partner is trans, and devastated is only one of them. And of course, I am sure that Grace had many other emotions as well, some of which came through in the book, but others of which we don’t get to hear about since the book is a story by Jenny, not by Grace. But I want to ask the book why Grace was devastated. I can invent lots of reasons. It is clear that Jenny steamrolled the whole transition right over Grace, and that can produce lots of negative emotions. It’s also clear both from the book and from subsequent interviews with Jenny and Grace together that, while they are still married, they don’t have any kind of sexual contact. Perhaps that’s where the devastation comes from. Maybe it comes from homophobia, and being devastated about either having to leave your partner or being perceived as queer for the rest of your life.
And because so many of the narratives I’ve read from partners of trans people involve feelings like devastation and betrayal, I have to question myself. Why don’t I feel those emotions? I have lots of emotions: excited, in love, anxious, downright afraid, disoriented, alone, but none of my emotions are close to betrayal or devastation. Why?